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Sustainable Resource Use

Tanker ship being unloaded in the Pauillac harbor, a part of the port of Bordeaux, France
Bar chart: 4 trillion $ in costs at risk Negative trend

For dwelling, clothing, mobility etc. (and so on), materials and energy are needed that will only be available in the long run, if a) renewable resources are used within the time frame of regeneration or b) non-renewable resources are substituted by renewable ones before extraction stops keeping up with demand. (For renewable resources, see challenges regarding soils, forests, and available water).

Affected people and foundations of life: Global resource extraction was 55.0 billion tonnes in 2002 (non-metallic minerals, fossil energy carriers, metal ores, and 15.6 billion tonnes of biomass from agriculture, forestry, fishery and grazing). Per capita extraction was 8.8 tonnes (20.0 tonnes in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, 6.0 in BRIICS countries [Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa], and 6.7 tonnes in the rest of the world). Additionally, during extraction huge amounts of unused materials are moved (mining overburden, e. g. [for instance], some 3.5 tonnes per tonne fossil fuel). (OECD 2008, 240 and 241.) Whether the world's natural resource base is capable of sustaining the continuance and growth of extraction, is a matter of controversy. Assumptions range from scarcity within a short period of time to a practically indefinite resource base.
  Taking into consideration today's consumption level (not regarding a continuing rise), deposits of resources like silver, gold, tin, copper, tungsten and nickel will be sufficient for economic extraction for the next 14 to 44 years, if including marginal and subeconomic reserves 29 to 158 years. There is a higher amount of raw materials in the Earth's crust, and in all likelihood there are also more, today unknown deposits of them, perhaps smaller ones, or in lower concentrations. However, to keep the same extraction level beyond the time frames mentioned a continuance or increase in technological development is needed, successful explorations and investments, as happened in past decades. (RWI [Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung]/ISI [Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung]/BGR [Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe] 2006.) Because of decreasing resource concentration within explored deposits, the material flow, energy use and pollution caused by extraction will likely increase, as the costs might do, too. There is not a lot of data about the issue to which extent of low resource concentrations large-scale extraction will work physically, economically, ecologically, and timely.

Regarding petroleum, the International Energy Agency sees increasing market tightness beyond 2010, as oil demand growth surpasses the growth in global oil capacity. There are different causes: demand growth, lack of investment, geopolitical and financial problems, and oil field decline. (IEA [International Energy Agency] 2007, 5f. [and following page]) According to presumptions, global petroleum production rate (barrels per day) will reach a maximum and decline subsequently – regardless of large reserves and resources. The assumed onset for "peak oil" or the plateau of production regarding conventional oil ranges from 2005 to around 2020 (ASPO [Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas] 2008; EWG [Energy Watch Group] 2008, 13; BGR 2005; IEA 2008, 6, and 2008a, 8; Birol 2008); including non-conventional oil (like tar sand) the peak will be, according to the IEA, not before 2030 (IEA 2004, 2008, 6, and 2008a, 8). Production [of conventional oil] has already peaked in most non-OPEC-countries and will peak in most others before 2030. Falling crude oil and NGLs production is largely offset by rising non-conventional output (IEA 2008, 6f., addition in square brackets). While in the meantime there are quite few disagreements on the peak, there are more in regards to when and how strong the decline afterwards will be. Projections for 2030 range from a sustaining plateau of conventional oil production to a decrease by half (IEA 2008, 6, and 2008a, 8; ASPO 2008; EWG 2008, 13). The peak and decline of oil extraction flows are explained by physical constrains and/or costs of extraction. Underlying causes of this slow depletion are: dropping pressure of deposits during exploitation, viscosity of extracted oil (increasing portion of heavier oil), lacking efficiency of gas injection (with regard to flows, not to recovery factor), time frames (and costs) for measures to increase flow rate, etc. Investment in 1 mb/d of additional capacity – equal to the entire capacity of Algeria today – is needed each year by the end of the projection period [2030] just to offset the projected acceleration in the natural decline rate (IEA 2008, 7, emphasis by original, addition in square brackets). As a consequence oil prices could increase, or demand has to decrease because of substitution, efficiency or savings. A peak of natural gas extraction is projected to follow within this century.
  If risks are not managed farsightedly, peak oil could lead to severe consequences to world economy, including a possible recession. Transportation and global trade would be affected in particular. Preventive mitigation or retroactive adaptation would take about 10 to 20 years, and oil supply disruptions associated with the approach of peaking could cost the US economy alone about US$4 trillion. (DOE [United States Department of Energy] 2005, 4, 31 and 71.)
  Peak oil has to be considered as a risk with some uncertainty, just like other factors leading to a gap between demand and supply of oil. This applies especially to a lack of investment for sustaining or extending the current oil production capacity of 84 megabarrel per day (mb/d): Some 30 mb/d of new capacity is needed by 2015. There remains a real risk that under-investment will cause a supply crunch in that timeframe. (IEA 2008, 7.)

Resource efficiency and savings are necessary not only to prolong the use of our resource base, but also to save energy, minimize CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions and other environmental damage, as well as to gain economic savings. Scarcity of resources can cause international conflicts.

Targets/goals: no global target. According to the UN (United Nations) Environmental Programme a long-term reduction of resource consumption of industrialized countries by a factor of 10 is necessary to be able to meet, among others, the requirements of less developed countries (UNEP 1999, 2). The European Union targets to save 20% of annual consumption of primary energy by 2020 (compared to the energy consumption forecasts for 2020). This objective corresponds to achieving approximately a 1.5% saving per year up to 2020. (EU [European Union] 2006.) Germany has, in its sustainability strategy, set the target to roughly double resource productivity from 1990/94 to 2020 (Bundesregierung [Federal Government of Germany] 2002, 93).

Trend: Global resource extraction has increased by 36% from 1980 to 2002 and is projected to grow by another 48% from 2002 to 2020, up to 80 billion tonnes. The decrease in extraction per unit of GDP (gross domestic product) is projected to slow down. (OECD 2008, 240.) Regarding oil see above-mentioned projections of IEA and others.

Measures: Besides substitution and saving there are appoaches for increasing resource productivity or resource efficiency: dematerialization, miniaturization, durability and reusing of products respectively components, and recycling of material.

Annotation: 1 tonne = 1 000 kg = 1 metric ton.


Draft (2008)

This draft is to be reviewed by experts. Your hints are welcome, please use the contact form.

Photo credit: © Port Autonome de Bordeaux